I would love to see the Lord in action chatting with people with Autism. Even as a parent of two boys with Autism, I would love to learn from the Lord Himself how to interact with people with this difficult social disability. The Lord was great at cutting to the heart of the matter and He would respond to these people in a way that would have made a connection of understanding. Those are the kind of engagements that would be huge for individuals with Autism who are misunderstood all the time.
Tips for engaging people on the Autism spectrum
I am going to offer some helpful information about engaging people with Autism, but I would like to add a disclaimer that although Autism does affect people generally in some key ways, every person is different. So I can offer helpful tips but suggest that you need to really get to know the individual to learn more about how to engage with each person.
To start off, the most important tip is to not be afraid of upsetting either children or adults with Autism. I know you have probably heard that they are sensitive to noise, sight and touch and that they don’t do well with changes to their environment or schedule, but that doesn’t mean they will have a meltdown if you talk to them or if you talk about something they are unfamiliar with. It is far better to engage with them than to stay away for fear of saying something wrong.
Some clues that they are getting anxious during your interaction with them is heavy breathing, pacing or increased body movement. When that happens, you can ask them if they need a break from talking and they will tell you. They are pretty blunt and direct so there is no need to avoid asking direct questions like that. If they are non-verbal then just stop talking and help them turn off the stimulation that is too much for them. Close a curtain with bright sunlight or a door to a crowd of people with too much activity and noise. My son (who is on the severe end of the spectrum and non-verbal) actually responds when I quietly say, “Breathe slowly” and show him with my slow, deep breaths.
Always make attempts to engage with people on the spectrum.
Just because someone has trouble socializing like everyone else, it does not necessarily mean that they don’t want to have conversations or that they don’t need to have conversations. If we are really loving our brothers and sisters with Autism, we are going to have as many awkward social conversations as it takes until we find out what works. Then we will nurture our relationships with them by continuing to do what works. Ask parents, siblings or spouses what is a good way to engage them. Find out what their favourite thing is and ask them about it.
If a child is non-verbal, it is tougher. Saying Hi and giving high fives are a start, then make note of some things they have with them or something they are doing and just chat about those. It might seem like gibberish or like they don’t understand, but you are engaging them and eventually, you will develop a really cool relationship with them. Though you may be the only one talking, if you watch their responses, you will learn more about them and they will slowly let you into their world and you will be their special friend. Parents will be more than appreciative that someone in the assembly is taking interest in their children who can’t talk.
Understanding behaviours associated with Autism
Don’t enable the behaviours that should not be encouraged. First, when I say this I don’t mean to take it upon yourselves to discipline children with Autism that appear to be acting out. There are behaviours with autism that require different responses than typical children and those should be handled by parents. The complexity of communication and sensory processing disorders and the frustrations for children with autism are no joke and must not be compared with badly behaved children. That said, don’t be afraid to change the conversation subject when they are obsessing over one thing too much. In a polite way, you can say, “That sounds interesting, but I have been wanting to know how your Sunday School class went.” You may even need to interrupt them, but in order for them to learn good social skills, they should understand that they can’t hijack you to get a full 20 minute lecture about zebras in. Engage them for an acceptable amount of time but stop them if you have to and say, “Do you know what I want to talk about?” Follow the parent’s lead. If you see them correcting them when they interrupt a conversation, then don’t be afraid to say, “If you wait just a minute, I want to finish what I was saying …”
Adults with autism need to be treated like an adult too. Be aware if you start treating them like a child because of their disability and change that. You can be sensitive to their special needs and still treat them like a peer.
Don’t exclude them from things!
Invite that family over for lunch on Sunday. Invite them to extra-curricular activities like movie night or bowling. Let the parents decide if they can handle it and what they will need to help them to be able to go and enjoy it. Ask the parent what you can do to help and take those extra measures.
Another suggestion is to try and find a way for people with Autism to serve in your assembly. Give them a job and they will do it well and faithfully and they will be happy to have that job. An idea is taking the bread and wine cups to the kitchen and emptying the cups and bagging the leftover bread or whatever is done with those emblems. Perhaps they can run the computer or help in the sound booth. Maybe they can be the photocopy person for Sunday School teachers. They can put items in mail slots. My sons do garbage and recycling at their school and need a helper, but they can do it. How about putting the books back in order in the library? This type of thing will also help encourage others in the assembly to engage with them and before you know it, there will be a community for this brother or sister with Autism and they will feel safe and loved.
It can be such an isolating world living with Autism as an individual and as a family. When the church family is not only aware of this but makes efforts to help, it makes a world of difference.
Here are a couple of verses to reinforce the idea
Share each other’s burdens, and in this way obey the law of Christ. Gal 6:2
For God is not unjust. He will not forget how hard you have worked for him and how you have shown your love to him by caring for other believers, as you still do. Heb 6:10